Thoughts from Ken Kaufman

The Hospital Makeover—Part 2

3 minute
Physicians shaking hands

America’s hospitals have a $104 billion problem. That’s the amount you arrive at if you multiply the number of physicians employed by hospitals and health systems (approximately 341,200 as of January 2022, according to data from the Physicians Advocacy Institute and Avalere) by the median $306,362 subsidy—or loss—reported in our Q1 2023 Physician Flash Report.

Subsidizing physician employment has been around for a long time and such subsidies were historically justified as a loss leader for improved clinical services, the potential for increased market share, and the strengthening of traditionally profitable services. But I am pretty sure the industry did not have $104 billion in losses in mind when the physician employment model first became a key strategic element in the hospital operating model. However, the upward reset in expenses brought on by the pandemic and post-pandemic inflation has made many downstream hospital services that historically operated at a profit now operate at breakeven or even at a loss. The loss leader physician employment model obviously no longer works when it mostly leads to more losses.

This model is clearly broken and in demand of a near-term fix. Perhaps the critical question then is how to begin? How to reconsider physician employment within the hospital operating plan?

Out of the box, rethink the physician productivity model. Our most recent Physician Flash Report data shows that for surgical specialties, there was a median $77 net patient revenue per provider wRVU. For the same specialties, there was a median $80 provider paid compensation per provider wRVU. In other words, before any other expenses are factored in, these specialties are losing $3 per wRVU on paid compensation alone. Getting providers to produce more wRVUs only makes the loss bigger. It’s the classic business school 101 problem. If a factory is losing $5 on every widget it produces, the answer is not to produce more widgets. Rather, expenses need to come down, whether that is through a readjustment of compensation, new compensation models that reward efficiency, or the more effective use of advanced practice providers.

Second, a number of hospital CEOs have suggested to me that the current employed physician model is quite past its prime. That model was built for a system of care that included generally higher revenues, more inpatient care, and a greater proportion of surgical vs. medical admissions. But overall, these trends were changing and then were accelerated by the Covid pandemic. Inpatient revenue has been flat to down. More clinical work continues to shift to the outpatient setting and, at least for the time being, medical admissions have been more prominent than before the pandemic.

Taking all this into account suggests that in many places the employed physician organizational and operating model is entirely out of balance. One would offer the calculated guess that there are too many coaches on the team and not enough players on the field. This administrative overhead was seemingly justified in a different loss leader environment but now it is a major contributor to that $104 billion industry-wide loss previously calculated.

Finally, perhaps the very idea of physician employment needs to be rethought. My colleagues Matthew Bates and John Anderson have commented that the “owner” model is more appealing to physicians who remain independent then the “renter” model. The current employment model offers physicians stabiliity of practice and income but appears to come at the cost of both a loss of enthusiasm and lost entrepreneurship. The massive losses currently experienced strongly suggest that new models are essential to reclaim physician interest and establish physician incentives that result in lower practice expenses, higher practice revenues, and steadily reduced overall subsidies.

Please see this blog as an extension of my last blog, “America’s Hospitals Need a Makeover.” It should be obvious that by analogy we are not talking about a coat of paint here or even new appliances in the kitchen. The financial performance of America’s hospitals has exposed real structural flaws in the healthcare house. A makeover of this magnitude is going to require a few prerequisites:

  1. Don’t start designing the renovation unless you know specifically where profitability has changed within your service lines and by explicitly how much. Right now is the time to know how big the problem is, where those problems are located, and what is the total magnitude of the fix.
  1. The Board must be brought into the discussion of the nature of the physician employment problem and the depth of its proposed solutions. Physicians are not just “any employees.” They are often the engine that runs the hospital and must be afforded a level of communication that is equal to the size of the financial problem. All of this will demand the Board’s knowledge and participation as solutions to the physician employment dilemma are proposed, considered, and eventually acted upon.

The basic rule of home renovation applies here as well: the longer the fix to this problem is delayed the harder and more expensive the project becomes. The losses set out here certainly suggest that physician employment is a significant contributing factor to hospitals’ current financial problems overall. It would be an understatement to say that the time to get after all of this is right now.

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